By Yvette Martyn

Prof Nutt

Professor Nutt caused controversy by comparing the harm caused by cannabis, horse riding, smoking and ecstasy

What happened?

Politicians had to make decisions regarding the law on drugs. To ensure the laws were backed up by science, scientific advisory councils existed. Enter Prof Nutt, chairman of The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

So politicians were working with scientists, sounds great! But a problem arose: the scientific facts didn’t match the antidrug policies the country had in place. Most notably: the reclassification of cannabis from Class C to Class B.

Professor Nutt said

  • Cannabis is safer than alcohol and tobacco.
  • Ecstasy is less dangerous than horse-riding.

And he didn’t pluck this information from thin air; the Science Select Committee produced a fabulous graph. (Courtesy of the BBC you can see the graph here). It ranked the harm particular drugs do against one another. Within it the 4 offending drugs came in rank of most dangerous:


(Please note horse riding was not included as it is not a drug but Prof Nutt has stated statistics warranting his comment on the dangers of the sport in comparison with taking ecstasy.)

Blimey, we had a huge problem here, ecstasy and cannabis were illegal but science told us they are less dangerous than legal activities such as horse-riding, alcohol and tobacco. The government felt they had no option but to sack Prof Nutt.

So what is the argument about?

Science v Politics – the drug argument

The Politician’s argument:

Politicians want drugs classified so it sends out signals to users and drug dealers.

The scientist’s argument:

Scientists want drugs classified in a league of the harm each drug causes. They believe the classification doesn’t deter people from taking drugs so it should exist to allow people to make informed decisions.

So what has Prof Nutt been accused of?

  • Crossing a line into politics, campaigners have stated that he’s on a one man crusade to legalise drugs.
  • Jacqui Smith accused Professor Nutt of trivialising drug danger and being insensitive to the families of victims of ecstasy.
  • Alan Johnson accused him of, campaigning against government decisions when he was supposed to be an advisor.

And what has the government been accused of?

  • Making scientists mislead people on the harm of drugs solely to back up policies.
  • Ignoring scientific messages for public perception and the need to send out a message.
  • Scaring people by exaggerating information.
  • Preventing Prof Nutt from the free speech he had a right too.

So what’s going on either side of the fence?

The scientists say:

What is the point of asking people with huge domains of knowledge to advise you on making policies, if you really mean stand behind me and give me statistics to back up the policies I have already decided I’ll make.

But the politicians say:

You are supposed to be advising politicians so that they can make informed choices on policies, if there is a policy you don’t like you shouldn’t continue criticise it in public forums.

What’s going to happen now?
The scientific community isn’t happy and the government needs them. Scientific advisors advise politicians so they can make decisions on all areas such as energy generation and healthcare.

The members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of drugs are all considering their position right now. Two of them have just resigned over the sacking but many more could follow. If this is seen on other scientific advisory councils then the government could be left with huge problems.

Image compiled from pictures available at :

Image: Maggie Smith /

Image: Salvatore Vuono /

Image: Karen Shaw /

Image: Darren Robertson /